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More ‘70s week: A Cowboy wasn’t the answer in 1974

The summer before the 1974-’75 season, the Leafs were coming off another “off” year. Oh, they had made the playoffs the season before, but were immediately bounced in the spring of ’74 by the Boston Bruins in four games.

The Leafs had been devastated by the loss of several promising young players to the WHA two summers prior. But they had begun a “rebuild” (again) under GM Jim Gregory, with Ian Turnbull, Bob Neely, Lanny McDonald and Swedish imports Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming.

With all those players entering their second season in ’74-‘75 and veterans Norm Ullman and Dave Keon still around, hope sprang eternal for many of us.

Gregory perhaps felt the same way, and so he went about acquiring some other veterans to help move the team forward.

One of those acquisitions was Gary Sabourin, who had been an effective two-way performer for many years with the St. Louis Blues. The other was Bill “Cowboy” Flett, a winger from the Stanley Cup champion Flyers (pictured right).

I remember the day I heard about the Flett trade on the radio. It was late May and I was home from school for the summer. I was excited enough to call my old high school buddy and fellow Leaf fan, Mark. We projected Flett as the kind of guy who could really help—hey, he was a big winger who scored 43 goals during the 1972-’73 season with the Flyers.

And, he was a Broad Street Bully. Not that I liked the Flyers or the way they played, but the Leafs the year before weren’t exactly a tough team, so we figured a little aggressiveness could only help.

The previous season, Flett had slumped badly, notching only 17 regular-season goals, and going scoreless in 17 playoff games. But the Flyers won the Cup for the second year in a row, and we wanted to believe that that performance was an aberration, not a sign of things to come.

(Not that it mattered, but Flett was, in fact, returning, to his original organization. He had been in the Leaf system in Rochester, Victoria and Tulsa until he was claimed in the expansion draft by the LA Kings in 1967, where he had two 20+ goal seasons.)

The season wasn’t too far along before the experiment just didn’t appear to be working. Flett seemed slower than I remembered. The Leafs tried him with different centers, but no chemistry developed. Flett finished the season with only 15 goals in 77 regular season games and none in 5 playoff games.

The Leafs lost in the playoffs to Flett’s old team, the Flyers, in four straight games.

The experiment ended completely when Flett went to the Atlanta Flames the following season, where played with ex-Leaf defenseman Pat Quinn.

Flett still finished his NHL career with more than 200 goals, and added another 100 in the WHA, where he experienced a bit of a rejuvenation. Overall, a nice career.

But for whatever reason, that one year in Toronto just didn’t work, for Flett or the Leafs.

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